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The massacre in Pará: report analyzes the debate in social networks on police action in rural encampment


10 months ago

The Event

Two weeks ago, on May 24, 2017, a joint action for land ownership recovery by the civil and military police forces of the state of Pará resulted in the death of ten rural workers linked to agrarian labor movements at Fazenda Santa Lúcia, in the town of Pau D’Arco, southeast region of the state (more than 800 kilometers from the capital, Belém).  The episode is one more chapter of the grave violations of human rights that mark the history of the state and the country: it is the largest number of deaths in an agrarian conflict since the massacre of Eldorado dos Carajás 21 years ago, a city that is only a four-hour drive from Pau D’Arco.

After the event, the Public Security Office of Pará published a note stating that the civil and military police officers were met with gunfire when trying to carry out judicial orders and had reportedly acted in self-defense.  Witnesses state that the episode was in fact an execution and that the farmers were taken by surprise by the arrival of the public agents.  The version presented by the police officers has been contested, and entities linked with the defense of human rights question the fact that only one side of the supposed confrontation was shot and had wounds. The president of the Commission for Agrarian Rights from OAB (Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil – the Brazilian equivalent of the American Bar Association) at Pará declared that “it is difficult to believe that ten people were killed and that it was a confrontation with the police”. The minister of Human Rights, Luislinda Valois, said in a note that it was a “slaughter” and, as such, was “unacceptable”. The handling of the corpses after the event made investigating the details even more difficult. At the Legislative Assembly of the state of Pará (Alepa), the report presented to the commission of human rights also points out questionable facts in the version of the police officers involved in the action.

>>> Check here the report in PDF

The episode at Fazenda Santa Lúcia – or slaughter at Pau D’Arco, as it became known – was largely debated in the social networks inside Pará.  Aiming to analyze its impact on the social level, we considered user posts geolocated in the state, by local actors and from regional media outlets. The theme took a leading role, and immediately on May 24 was responsible for 27% of the discussion on Twitter, sites and blogs, with 2,677 mentions. The largest volume of mentions about the police action happened, however, only two days later, adding up to 38% of the mentions about the state, with 3,477 mentions, mainly because 29 police officers involved in the action were put on leave.  From May 24 until June 6, the action of the police in Pará mobilized 14,813 mentions on Twitter, sites and blogs.

However, the repercussion of the episode was not restricted to the state. The Slaughter at Pau D’Arco reverberated on social networks and national media, drawing attention to the problem of agrarian violence.  Between May 24 and June 5, 21,283 tweets about the theme in all of Brazil were collected.  A big part of the publications treated the police operation as a case of slaughter, demonstrating that the official version of a confrontation between the occupants of the farm and the police did not convince the public opinion. Guilherme Boulos, one of the leaders of the Homeless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto – MTST), was a highlight among the political actors. Among the media outlets, the newspapers “Folha de S. Paulo” and “Estado de São Paulo” had the highest reach on Twitter. The other most frequently shared posts on the topic were by the Pro-Indigenous Missionary Council (Conselho Indigenista Missionário – @ciminacional), by users @wigvan and @AnaVilarino1 and by journalist Xico Sá (@xicosa)

Internet users also point out inconsistencies in the official narrative, criticizing the removal of the corpses before the expert investigation.  In news pieces by “El País” and by the website Intercept Brasil, the deaths are considered a consequence of the recent rise in agrarian conflicts. According to Intercept Brasil, the slaughter was an “announced tragedy” because, since 2007, 103 similar killings happened.  TV Folha also made a special report on the massacre of the rural workers, drawing attention to the urgency of the issue.

The movements online about the massacre in Pará can be found in the Map of Interactions on Twitter (see below). In this visualization, the users with the largest names were retweeted the most. Users represented by the same color often retweet the same people and/or each other. The data used to generate this visualization is from posts found between May 24 and June 5.

In the analysis of words most commonly used on Twitter, it is possible to verify that “slaughter” (“chacina”) and “massacre” (“massacre”) were some of the most recurrent. This indicates that the opinions about the topic on the networks seemed to condemn the official version that the deaths were the result of a confrontation – in fact, the word “confrontation” (“confronto”) appears in a smaller amount than the two other terms mentioned previously.

The following word cloud depicts the debate about Pará on Twitter, sites and blogs and reaffirms the consensus among internet users that the actions of the police violated human rights. Among the highlighted words, “slaughter” (“chacina”) was repeated in 5,552 mentions about the action.   The debate in Brazil follows the same trend, with a considerable number of users associating the police operation that resulted in the deaths with the action carried out by the mayor of São Paulo, João Doria, at the so-called crackland (cracolândia) at the Luz neighborhood.

Violence in the countryside

The recent case at Fazenda Santa Lúcia can be considered one more example of a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly recurrent in Brazil: the deaths caused by countryside conflicts. According to the NGO Global Witness, Brazil leads the world ranking in countryside killings. In 2015, there were 50 deaths, a far higher number than that of the second in the list, the Philippines, with 33 deaths. The report also points out that there is a worrying trend of underreporting these numbers, since many deaths are not identified as related to countryside conflicts or are simply not notified.

According to the Pastoral Commission of the Earth (Comissão Pastoral da Terra – CPT), the year of 2016 registered an increase of 22% in countryside killings when compared to the previous year, moving from 50 to 61 deaths.  The numbers already show an aggravation of the scenario indicated by Global Witness, but it seems 2017 is moving towards an even worse situation. Up until May this year, CPT had already identified 36 deaths in agrarian conflicts.
Considering this growing problem, it is important to understand the context of these deaths. The yearly report of 2016 by CPT registered 1,536 occurrences of countryside conflicts, as opposed to 1,217 in 2015, representing an increase of 26%. In 2016, 84% of these conflicts were land disputes, which include occupations/recoveries of land, encampments and occurrences (evictions and expulsions, threats of evictions and expulsions, destroyed goods and gunning).

Analyzed separately, the conflicts for land increased almost 30% between 2015 and 2016, but not in the same way: occupations/recoveries and encampments decreased 5% in the period, while the occurrences raised almost 40%.  According to the CPT, this points to a scenario of escalation of violence and, at the same time, reduction of the usual activities of social movements in a national level.

Another important characteristic of countryside conflicts is their concentration in the Amazon region.  According to the CPT, 57% of the conflicts registered in 2016 happened there.  Besides that, 96% of disputed areas in Brazil were part of Legal Amazon and 54% of the families involved in conflicts were also from that region – even though the population is a little more than 12% of Brazilians.  Even more critical is the concentration of the so-called “violence against the person” in countryside disputes in the Amazon region. Legal Amazon concentrated 79% of the killings caused by this type of conflict in 2016 (48 homicides out of 61 in Brazil), 86% of the death threats and 68% of the assassination attempts and physical aggressions.  It is also important to notice that the main victims of these conflicts in Amazon are the squatting communities, the homeless, the quilombolas and the indigenous peoples – adding up to more than 75% of the affected.

This accumulation of violence in Legal Amazon, even though it is not the region where the action of social movements who fight for lands grows the most , could be related to the positions of the individuals on the debate on social networks about the case in Pau D’Arco. The dominant view that the event was a “massacre” brings with it the perception of a clear asymmetry of forces between the parts. This scenario, in turn, brings with it the need to understand the dynamics of land occupation in the countryside that have been leading to the worsening of the tensions.

The monitoring by the Amazon Deforestation Estimation Project (Projeto de Estimativa de Desflorestamento da Amazônia – PRODES)  shows that, from 2015 to 2016, there was an increase of 41% in the number of square kilometers deforested in the area of the Legal Amazon in Pará, which puts it, in percentage, behind only Acre. In absolute numbers, however, Pará was the state that deforested the most in 2016: 3,025 square kilometers – more than double the number of the second on the list, Mato Grosso, which was also spotlighted a few weeks ago due to a slaughter that killed nine rural workers.  This data suggests that the conflicts are concentrated precisely in the places where the farming and extractivist frontiers are trying to advance.

In addition to timber extraction, a sector in which Pará leads as the largest national producer of wood logs, there is also ore extraction and the advancement of the farming frontier related to soybean cultivation and cattle farming. According to a study by IPEA in 2016, soybean and corn production moved to the center-west and northeast regions, mainly starting in the 2000s, involving states that share borders with Pará, such as Tocantins and Maranhão. According to Embrapa, this region is the great national agricultural frontier.

As for cattle farming, Pará leads the regional production with an income estimated to be more than R$ 5 billion, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply. Regarding mining, this activity represents 30% of Pará’s Gross Domestic Product. According to the Union of Mineral Industries of the State of Pará (Sindicato das Indústrias Minerais do Estado do Pará – Simineral), the state government has been receiving more and more investments in this sector, mainly starting in 2014. In the same direction, the Brazilian Institute of Mining (Instituto Brasileiro de Mineração) informed that Pará was responsible for more than 75% of Brazilian copper exports in 2014.


In a state affected by the trend of increase in violence in recent years, history seems to repeat itself. In 1996, in the slaughter in Eldorado do Carajás, 19 workers were killed by Pará’s southern police as a result of land disputes.  In 2017, in a nearby region, the massacre of Pau D’Arco left ten victims, in circumstances that very much remind those of 21 years before.

The similarity between the events was quickly identified by internet users who reverberated the event, associating the current governor, Simão Jatene (PSDB), to his homologous in the period of the Slaughter in Eldorado dos Carajás, Almir Gabriel.

Despite the gravity of the events and the repercussion on social networks and national and regional media, it took Governor Simão Jatene a week to comment on the deaths of the rural workers. On Facebook, he published a video in which he emphasizes the importance of impartial investigations on the case. Also remarkable was the silence of the town hall at Pau D’Arco about the case: on the official Facebook pages of both the town hall and the mayor, Fredson Pereira (PSDB), there are no posts about the case. Both profiles were silent between May 24 and May 30. No pronouncement by the mayor was found in news websites or in the official town hall website.

In the sphere of federal authorities and figures of national expression, President Michel Temer also did not make a pronouncement. The first minister to comment was Helder Barbalho, minister of National Integration, on the day of the event. Of Pará origins, he stated on Instagram that the information was “scattered”. The ex-minister of the Environment and possible candidate to the presidency of Republic, Marina Silva, commented on Twitter on May 25, stating that the slaughter must not go unpunished. The minister of Human Rights, Luislinda Valois, considered the action of the police “unacceptable”, on May 26, two days after the slaughter. Also on May 26, ex-president Dilma Rousseff joined the debate, demanding the investigation of the case via Twitter. Minister Torquato Jardim, who assumed the Ministry of Justice on May 31, determined that the Federal Police investigate the actions in the town of Pau D’Arco, one of his first acts as the head of the ministry.


However, the discontentment with the events in Pau D’Arco was not limited only to national actors. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), through a note, declared its concern with the excessive use of force by security agents in operations related to land conflicts and urged the Brazilian State to “regularize police procedures which involve the use of force respecting international standards regarding human rights, complying with the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality”.


[1] Still according to the CPT, the Amazon region registered less than 30% of the new land occupations in all of Brazil in 2016 and involved less than 20% of the families.

[2] PRODES is a partnership between the Ministry of the Environment and Ibama, financed by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, which uses satellite images provided by the National Institute of Space Research to calculate, since 1988, the evolution of the deforestation in the Legal Amazon.



Marco Aurelio Ruediger


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